Candlelight is so familiar, but the candlelight of Hanukkah is unique. Like light shimmering in a soothing dream; it is beautiful, delightful and unusable for anything but appreciation. Most of the time, we’re devoted to making the best use of whatever we have. We want better, stronger, faster. We strive to maximize profit and enjoyment. Not so with the eight lights of Hanukkah; that light is not at our disposal. It is not there to work for us.
What a strange and challenging principle; that something (in this case light) can be under our control, and yet not available for us to use. Traditionally, each night of Hanukkah immediately after lighting the candles we remind ourselves of this unique quality of Hanukkah light by saying:
These lights we kindle for the miracles and the wonders and the salvations and the victories that You performed for our ancestors … these Hanukkah lights are sacred. It is not permitted to make any practical use of them. We are not permitted to use their light, but only to look at them and to appreciate and to praise Your great name for Your miracles, Your wonders, and Your salvations.
It is quite a change for many of us multitaskers and maximizers to just sit, enjoy and appreciate. It is a challenge for many of us to feel that we are enough, and what we have is enough, and what we will have in the future is enough. This is a particularly appropriate year for this challenge since this year in the Hebrew calendar is a Shmita year, also called “Sabbatical Year” (because it occurs every seven years) and “Year of Release” (because debts are forgiven).
Every seven years, according to the Torah, debts are forgiven and farmers neither plant nor harvest. The fields lie fallow and the farmers’ control over “their” land is suspended. Just as every seven days, we rest on Shabbat; each seven years the land is supposed to rest from working for us. In explaining Shmita and the radical commandment to stop working the land, God explains: “The land is Mine; you are sojourning settlers with Me.” (Leviticus 25:23) God is the owner who has suspended the lease, opened the gates, and welcomed all who are hungry, human and animal alike, to come and eat.
Even before the Shmita year’s dramatic shift from an agricultural to a foraging economy, the biblical farmers’ claims of ownership are different from ours. In our society, ownership and production are for accumulating wealth – the more the better. Not so in the Torah where the main concern is not maximizing wealth but minimizing poverty. The Torah is clear that the farmers are not owners but rather, stewards who have temporary and partial control of “their” land. God, the true landowner, wants to make sure that the benefits of production are distributed to those in need. For example:
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the LORD am your God. You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another. (Lev 19:9-11)
In a total reversal of our system, the “stealing” here is applicable not to what we might call a “trespassing thief,” but rather to acquisitive landowners taking everything they can for themselves and violating their responsibility to provide for those in need.
The Shmita year invites us to contemplate a sacred sharing of ownership, and envision our earth resting rather than working for us. Similarly, our Festival of Lights invites us to receive the light from the hanukiah without putting it to practical use. May we have the curiosity and patience this year to receive the light in the spirit that it is offered.
Rabbi Steven A. Lewis is the spiritual leader of Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester.